Born in poverty, Gordon Parks taught himself how to take pictures and became the first black photographer to work for Life – dedicating himself to the struggle for equal rights, as this new exhibition shows
“Everyone talks about 1968 as the year of revolution, but America was burning in 1967,” says Mark Sealy. “There were many riots and disturbances that year, but Parks was looking at intimacy, not running across the country shooting riots. He was telling history through these very personal stories.”
He’s talking about Gordon Parks, the feted documentary photographer and film-maker (best known for directing Shaft). In particular Sealy is talking about Parks’ work with the Fontenelles, a family living in poverty in Harlem in 1967 that Parks photographed for a 16-page story published in Life in March ’68.
“At the height of Parks’ success he was asked by the editors of Life if he could explain the riots that were taking place across the country,” says Sealy. “The fact that he chose to do this through a focus on a single family is extraordinary in itself. He showed them struggling to cope with the relentless pressure of survival, documenting the minute details of their deprivation, the way the cold of the New York winter reduced their lives – the experiences he saw as fuelling the explosions of discontent in the cities that overwhelmingly took place in the summer.
“Parks never forgot his own experiences of poverty and cold [as a child and young man],” Sealy adds. “Working in the context of Life, he chose to use the position he achieved to represent his community in the struggle for social change.”
Norman Fontenelle, Sr., Harlem, New York, 1967 by Gordon Parks, © and courtesy Gordon Parks Foundation
Sealy has included this story in a new exhibition of Parks’ work he’s curated for Side Gallery – Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons, which goes on show this Saturday. It features images from the story plus a 20-minute film called Life of a Harlem Family which Parks made with the Fontenelles in 1968 for the US’ Public Broadcasting Service. “We don’t think the film or the photographs of A Harlem Family have been shown in the UK before as a series,” says Sealy. “It forms the heart of this exhibition.”
“If you look at Gordon’s work, he was not someone went goes out and did a big war story,” continues Sealy, who is director of Autograph ABP, the Association of Black Photographers. “What he’s doing is more about trying to make something more personal, to get close. He’s working with the good documentary tropes of truth and intimacy.”
Born to a farming family in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks was the youngest of 15 children. After his mother died when he was 11 he was sent to live with one of his sisters and her husband; by the time he was 15, he was turned out to the streets to fend for himself. He worked in brothels, and as a singer, piano player, bus boy, and semi-pro basketball player; when he landed a job in a gentlemen’s club, he took the opportunity to read many of the books in the club library.
While working as a waiter in a railway dining car, he came across illustrated magazines and became interested in photography; when he was 25 he bought his first camera in a pawn shop, and taught himself to take pictures. He went on to work for the Farm Security Administration under Roy Stryker, then with Lifemagazine in 1948, initially documenting racial segregation in the American South for the publication. It was an association that continued until 1972.
“There were problems with Life [in terms of representation], but they did at least employ a black photographer,” says Sealy. “I think Life was very canny – they realised something was afoot [with the American Civil Rights Movement from 1954-1968] and as a newspaper, as a journal of record, very perceptively realised they had to have someone on their staff who could get close to what was happening. Lots of newspapers had their head in the sand, but Life had its finger on the pulse.”
The title of the exhibition is taken from Parks’ own autobiography, published in 1966, and in it Sealy hopes to draw out critical questions concerning civil responsibility, human rights and modes of representation, picking out pertinent images such as the story on the Fontenelles and iconic shots of Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. Gordon Parks: A Choice of Weapons is part of Freedom City 2017, a city-wide programme across Newcastle which marks the 50 years since Newcastle University awarded Dr Martin Luther King an honorary degree.
“Newcastle is reanimating its past as enlightened space for real freedom at that moment,” says Sealy. “I’m very glad to be able to show Parks’ work in Newcastle at Side Gallery. The UK can be so London-centric – we forget about these independent, regional spaces as we build our big new institutions, but these places have been doing this community work for a very long time. Side Gallery was very important in my own history, growing up working class and in the region, and in terms of thinking through the politics of my identity.
“I would like to think that what this show can do is provide an opportunity to see how far we haven’t come in the last 50 years regarding the politics of race,” he continues. There is still disproportionate violence on the black body, still disproportionate numbers locked up, and still racial intolerance. 50 years on, what progress have we made? I hope these photographs help a whole generation of younger photographers to ask questions, and hopefully inspire them to make work.”